Everything about euthanizing a pet brings me down, and wears on my morale. I’ve practiced veterinary medicine for 28 years, and you’d think it would be no big deal, but it always is. I felt called to help animals when I was about 8 years old, and never really seriously considered anything else. I have devoted my life to doing this the best I was able, and I take my Hippocratic oath seriously. Advising on end of life decisions is a rather large part of my day. And when it comes to giving the injections, I don’t do so lightly. Down deep I really wonder whether or not I really have the right to snuff out life. Poof. Just like that. One minute the little guy is looking at me, sometimes suffering pitifully, sometimes seemingly not in discomfort, wagging his tail. The next moment, limp and without the spirit of life. Especially after my own recent losses, I value life perhaps more than most.
Pets are not just “important” to my clients and their families, they often ARE the only family some folks have. I think it’s hard for some to understand how deeply attached pet owners are to their beloved dogs and cats. If you’ve never had one, or keep yours in the backyard, you may not understand. But the vast majority of Americans consider their dogs and cats members of the family. Certainly this goes a long way to explain why behavior problems and obesity are issues I deal with in the exam room every single day. We overindulge ourselves, and our children, so why not our dogs and cats?
More often than not I’ve seen an older client quickly fade and die when they lose their pets. A dog is sometimes the only reason our seniors even get out of bed. They provide an incentive to get dressed, and get some exercise on that morning walk. Often a spouse has passed away, as well as friends, and children are distant. Seeing a bright eyed dog jumping around ecstatically, like you are the most important person in the world, makes life worth living. That wagging tail, expressing the epitome of unconditional love and acceptance is indescribable.
Likewise, the meow, meow, meow, meow of a kitty means you are the only one that can satisfy. You are the provider, the bread winner, the hero of their lives. You keep them comfortable and fed, and protect them from that awful brute that barks and slides around the floor and in general behaves like a complete idiot. You have the most comfortable lap and know just where to rub under the chin and behind the ears. The incessant purring and “making bread,” the kneading of the alternating front feet on your arm or in your face screams, “WAKE UP and feed me!”
Although I hate it more than I can completely put into words, there is something about the pain of loss that is so loving. The circle of life is played out in front of our eyes; the dynamics of living and the struggles surrounding death.
I remember back in school some of my classmates said they chose veterinary medicine over medical school because they preferred animals to people, one in fact “hated people.” That made me raise my eyebrows in wonder. (In fact, I spoke to the one who “hated” people at our 20 year reunion, and discovered that he was now in research. Those he hated so much must have reciprocated, and so couldn’t keep a practice going.) Which reminds me, I had also gotten that acceptance into medical school letter, and a rejection for vet school. About a month later, I learned that I had been placed on a “waiting list,” when I got the letter – I was next in line to be called for the freshman class when someone discovered she was pregnant. Funny how the turns life takes so change our journeys.
Anyway, I love veterinary medicine because of the people, not in spite of them. It’s an honor and a blessing to have a families trust when they bring in that new puppy and kitten. I smile down at the children who come in to watch me examine and inoculate their new best friend. I know they’ll sleep together, and sob over a boyfriend breakup and not making the basketball team. They’ll knock over the birthday cake at the sweet sixteen party, and chew up the $200 baseball bat (as well as mommy’s Coach purse and pee on dad’s shoes). They’ll look up and love unconditionally when a child is teased at school or isn’t asked to the dance. With such sad eyes, she’ll sit by the bedroom door everyday until they come home from college or on military leave, and run in circles uncontrollably, jumping up and down and howl with screams of delight at the homecoming.
She’ll benefit from prayers when I need to do an emergency surgery to stop the relentless vomiting, and tears of relief when I call with the news that I had removed the obstruction caused by the rawhide or acorn that they ate, or that the tumor was successfully removed, and everything’s going to be “just fine.”
And she’ll just sit by your side as you weep over the cancer, the job loss, the divorce, and the death that are all part of your family. Somehow she understands that you just need someone to sit with you. And hug. She does too.
And when the time comes when the heart or kidneys fail, her own cancer wins, or the arthritis is just too bad to even stand, she’ll trust you to make that loving decision. Your unthinkable anguish can not be described here. She has helped you raise your family, been there through it all, and now all you can feel is raw emotion. We’ll cry together, pray if you wish, say goodbye and hug.
So imagine my surprise, when I’m asked to do the unthinkable.
Everyone in my office knows my feelings regarding euthanasia. We certainly assume the one presenting the pet is responsible, loving and caring, and has suffered to make that final decision. So its clearly not my intent to make it any more difficult on such a horrible day. But I do take my mission seriously, and as such, if I don’t have an existing relationship with the client and understand the condition of their pet, I need to do so. If you have a dog that’s 20 years old, and obviously in sad shape, that’s one thing, but if your dog doesn’t fit into your new apartment size, or cat doesn’t match the new furniture (I kid you not), that’s entirely different. Some guys don’t care, if you want a perfectly happy, healthy animal euthanized, and are willing to pay for it, no problem. But I’m not “that guy.”
Some days we’re just plain busy, and everyone does their job so efficiently that corners get cut. One day last week was that day. I finished looking at a lab test, and as I raced through the procedures room to get to my next appointment, I noticed my nurses placing an IV catheter into a beautiful boxer’s arm. Something caught my attention and I stopped in my tracks, and inquired as to what they were doing. “Exam room 3 is your 4:15 appointment, apparently he has cancer.” Hmmm, really?
I pulled the chart off the slot outside of room 3, and discovered we had never seen the pet before. There was a note inserted from the receptionist that although she had requested they bring copies of previous medical record with them, they seemed to bristle when asked if they had brought them, and said they had “forgotten.” I opened the door, shook the huge client’s hand and asked about ‘Rocky’s’ condition. “Oh my wife took him to a vet in Titusville, and they said he has cancer.” I feigned surprise, and said, “Really? Wow, he looks great! What kind of cancer? What kind of tests did they perform?” The guy actually chuckled as he replied that he had no idea, his wife had taken the dog there. “What was the vet in Titusville’s name?” He said her name was Dr. Lorraine something. I replied, “That shouldn’t be too difficult, there can’t be many veterinarians in Titusville named Lorraine, I’ll be right back,” and quickly departed to do some “Googling” to find a vet named Lorraine in Titusville and get a quick copy of her medical workup. Less than two minutes later, just as I discovered there were no Dr. Lorraines in Titusville, or anywhere in central Florida, my nurse rushed into my office to tell me that the client “doesn’t need you to do that.”
“Doesn’t need me to do what?” I asked. “Get the medical history.” This was all becoming a little interesting. “Well he may not need me to do it, but I, in fact do need to do it.”
As soon as I returned to the room, I was met by an angry man who entered well into my “personal space.” He asked, “Is there a problem, doctor?” (emphasis because of sarcasm). “I understand that this is a really hard day for you. Trust me, I get it. But I hope you’ll understand my situation. We are an animal hospital; we work very hard to save lives, and although we do perform euthanasia, we maintain a policy that it needs to be medically justified.” His body language took an ugly tone, and he actually stepped even closer to me, and raised his voice to an actual shout, “Are you telling me that I’m willing to pay you for a service, and you’re refusing to?” His wife slipped quietly out the door, clearly demonstrating the submission this man was accustomed to with his show. Quite certain that a little intimidation and the almighty buck would convince me, I think he was stunned that I actually took another step towards him, looked him directly in the eye, and said with a softer and gentler voice, “Sir, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. You gotta believe me, I’m not trying to make this difficult for you, but you didn’t bring in any medical records, and my staff looks to me for leadership. I have to maintain morale around here. Taking a life is very difficult on us as medical professionals, and so, in order to sleep at night, I need to be able to justify it.” He was absolutely furious, and I was quite certain that he was going to hit me. “So what are you, super savior vet? OOOH, I’m so impressed!” He shook his hand in exaggerated fashion with pretend fear. “So now I gotta ‘F’ing do this all over again somewhere else!” The terrified dog was now cowering in the corner. Had he seen this temper before? I remained as calm as I could, which just seemed to fuel his rage. “Sir, I understand you’re upset, and if you can find your previous medical records, or if you’d like me to examine ‘Rocky,’ I’ll certainly do that. “And you don’t need to use that kind of language.”
But it was much too late for logic. He ripped the poor, scared dog by the attached leash and stormed out, threw fifty bucks at the receptionist, and shouted, “You can tell Jesus Christ back there, “Thanks for nothing!”
The funny thing is, no one thought it was funny. This guy was clearly going to have his dog euthanized today.
I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially lately. Regardless of its happy, healthy appearance, it is quite possible that this poor pet had some serious problem. Maybe in his sorrow, he simply forgot to bring the records, and was too embarrassed to admit it. I do feel bad that things went the way they did, but I still don’t think I was out of line for requiring justification for ending a life.
Life is precious. Please remember to remind everyone that you love, that you do.